Levon Helm: 1940-2012

The Band's drummer dies of cancer at 71.

Levon Helm, the musician and, latterly, actor, best known as the drummer of The Band, has died of cancer in New York. He was 71. Helm was the only American in a band of Canadians obsessed with the mythology of the American South. He was born and raised in Marvell, Arkansas, a small town in the Mississipi delta.

Helm grew up around musicians (his father, a sharecropper, was a weekend guitarist) and in high school, he formed his first band, the Jungle Bush Beaters. As a teenager he entered the orbit of the R&B artist Ronnie Hawkins (himself Arkansas-born, though he made his name playing the club circuit north of the border in Ontario). Helm joined Hawkins's backing band, The Hawks, in 1958. It was here that he met the musicians with whom he'd eventually form The Band: Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and Rick Danko.

The Hawks split from Hawkins in the early Sixties and toured for a while as "Levon and the Hawks". Hawkins recognised that his talented young charges "wanted to play heavier music than that barroom stuff". Things got even heavier when Helm and Robertson were recruited by Bob Dylan to play some live shows after his "electric" heresy at the Newport Festival in July 1965. Dylan eventually recruited the other three Hawks and the outfit set out on tour. They made a noise of a kind that had not been heard before. The writer Greil Marcus called them, "without exception or qualifications" the greatest rock 'n' roll band he'd ever seen. "If you weren't there," he wrote, "it will be difficult to convey the visual power of their performance", or the "stately, extravagant, and visionary" sound they created.

Marcus's view wasn't widely held, however, and Helm, in particular, soon tired of the ritual execration of folk purists that the Dylan and his band had to endure each night. Helm quit the Hawks in November 1965, saying: "For the first time, I couldn't stick to my policy, which was to whistle while I worked." The drummer was reunited with the group now known as The Band in October 1967, by which time they were holed up in a house in Woodstock in upstate New York, where they'd been exploring the traditional musics of their adopted home - country, bluegrass and the blues.

Their first album Music from Big Pink was released in 1968, to a rapturous critical reception. Helm's sinuous drumming was the cynosure of The Band's sound. Ronnie Hawkins, quoted in Barney Hoskyns's wonderful book Across the Great Divide: The Band and America, put it very well: "When Robbie brought me the tape I said, Goddamn, that's country as hell, but it's funky country, I like it . . . Robbie got most of the credit but Levon was the funk in the music."

He was also its soul, a kind of guiding star for Robertson's journey into the American mythos. Nowhere was this better demonstrated than in "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down", on The Band's eponymous second album, which was also their masterpiece. In this song Helm is Virgil Caine, a Confederate survivor of an attack by Union cavalry during the American Civil War. Greil Marcus wrote: "The performance leaves behind a feeling that for all our old oppositions, every American still shares this event ... The song is not so much about the Civil War as it is about the way each American carried a version of that event within himself."

In the video below, The Band performs "The  Night They Drove Old Dixie Down", with Helm singing and playing drums, at their valedictory concert in November 1976, captured on film by Martin Scorsese in The Last Waltz.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Why do the words “soup, swoop, loop de loop” come to mind every time I lift a spoon to my lips?

It’s all thanks to Barry and Anita.

A while ago I was lending a friend the keys to our house. We keep spare keys in a ceramic pot I was given years ago by someone who made it while on an art-school pottery course. “That’s er . . . quite challenging,” the friend said of the pot.

“Is it?” I replied. “I’d stopped noticing how ugly it is.”

“Then it’s a grunty,” she said.

“A what?” I asked.

“A grunty. It’s something you have in your house that’s hideous and useless but you’ve stopped noticing it completely, so it’s effectively invisible.”

I was much taken with this idea and realised that as well as “grunties” there are also “gruntyisms”: things you say or do, though the reason why you say or do them has long since been forgotten. For example, every time we drink soup my wife and I say the same thing, uttered in a strange monotone: we say, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop.” How we came to say “soup, swoop, loop de loop” came about like this.

For a married couple, the years between your mid-thirties and your late forties might be seen as the decade of the bad dinner party. You’re no longer looking for a partner, so the hormonal urge to visit crowded bars has receded, but you are still full of energy so you don’t want to stay in at night, either. Instead, you go to dinner parties attended by other couples you don’t necessarily like that much.

One such couple were called Barry and Anita. Every time we ate at their house Barry would make soup, and when serving it he would invariably say, “There we are: soup, swoop, loop de loop.” After the dinner party, as soon as we were in the minicab going home, me and Linda would start drunkenly talking about what an arse Barry was, saying to each other, in a high-pitched, mocking imitation of his voice: “Please do have some more of this delicious soup, swoop, loop de loop.” Then we’d collapse against each other laughing, convincing the Algerian or Bengali taxi driver once again of the impenetrability and corruption of Western society.

Pretty soon whenever we had soup at home, Linda and I would say to each other, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop,” at first still ridiculing Barry, but eventually we forgot why we were saying it and it became part of the private language every couple develop, employed long after we’d gratefully ceased having soupy dinners with Barry and Anita.

In the early Nineties we had an exchange student staying with us for a year, a Maori girl from the Cook Islands in the southern Pacific. When she returned home she took the expression “soup, swoop, loop de loop” with her and spread it among her extended family, until finally the phrase appeared in an anthropological dissertation: “ ‘Soup swoop, loop de loop.’ Shamanistic Incantations in Rarotongan Food Preparation Rituals” – University of Topeka, 2001. 

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt